Monday, August 24, 2009

When My Jewish Friend Ended Up In Pyongyang

Travel Channel eat your heart out... how about this for a scoop, a Jewish New York fund manager visiting Pyongyang, North Korea. A place I will never ever get to visit, or even want to visit. I am not even going to speculate why, maybe my friend has a secret "internet bride" he was meeting up (but did not tell me)???? ; ) Anyways, it was a very interesting email I got from him. Yea, put this up without his permission, anyway, if he starts bitching about this, then I will have to take it down ... ROFL... till then ... enjoy:

Wednesday I returned from five days in
Pyongyang, capital of the DPRK. Despite feeling constant unease while there- it's a military state, foreigners may not bring in cell phones, internet is forbidden, and even the friendliest youngsters believe the United States to be their sworn enemy- it was the most incredible trip I’ve taken.

I visited in a group of 19 Americans, mostly in their early twenties but some older, including a 78-yr-old woman who lived in Pyongyang until she was 15. Visa restrictions are eased during Arirang, the Mass Games Festival, a synchronized dance spectacle with more than 100,000 performers portraying communist/nationalistic themes. (An impressive event with crazy economics: 150,000 total performers/staff to welcome 3,000 attendees, less than a fifth of whom were foreigners paying $150/ticket. So maybe the night brought in revenues of $90k, or 60 cents per worker involved? Ignoring electricity, costumes/props, rental etc.)

DPRK is a perfectly-preserved, living, breathing museum of the Cold War. During five days in the capital city of a nation of 23 million, I once observed someone on a cellphone and I once saw a construction crane, at what appeared to be an abandoned site. Roads in PY were almost empty for four days, until it rained the morning we left and a little traffic built up. Nonetheless, I saw two billboards advertising the national automobile, the only ads I saw while in the country.

Besides those, all signs and billboards are government propaganda, often depicting Kim Il Sung, the founder of the nation who died in 1994, standing amongst farmers and a bounteous harvest or playing with adoring children. A misconception I had going in was the depth of the personality cult around Kim Jong Il. There is a significant one, but it pales compared to his father. Every adult in the country wears Kim Il Sung’s face on a pin. Kim Jong Il also appears in propaganda posters, but never alone, only with his father. (However, readers of Korean script advised me many pure text signs, without images, mentioned Kim Jong Il.)

Things you notice around PY:

-Wide empty streets

-Lack of color in people’s attire and buildings, except for women wearing bright traditional dress

-How clean the streets and buildings are

-How old every building is (1960s/70s)

-Trees and flowers everywhere, well-pruned hedges, flowers on most terraces

-Near total lack of retail

-Long or absurdly long, but orderly lines in front of tram stops

-Trams stuffed to the brim with passengers

-Paintings of Kim Il Sung

- “150 days” written everywhere (a campaign encouraging extra hard work for five months this year, in preparation for 2012, the 100th anniversary of KIS’s birth)

-Few bicycles, everyone walks

-Little smoking, except by our guides (can the people afford cigarettes?)

We saw small commissary shops in many apt buildings but they seemed empty. (It was tough to see: with no traffic, you’re never stopped long.) We saw many blue-and-white square tents on the sidewalks with one or two shopkeepers. We were advised they sell drinks and ice cream. Winter in PY is like NY: no way those tents last year-round. Maybe, they're only up during Arirang, when there are foreigners in the country; maybe, everything we saw was staged…. Impossible to know, as we had no freedom of movement. I only know the streets I saw were clean. No idea about the rest. We saw two subway stations, as we rode one stop and had to get off. Both were ok. No idea about the rest. (Although it was odd that turnstiles appeared to accept a sort of metrocard yet every single person I saw paid with a paper ticket.)

Bill Clinton and Al Gore greet freed US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee

I did not get satisfactory answers about how goods get distributed, groceries and clothing, or especially apartments. For apts, there’s a district government group, but it was unclear after that. Who is eligible, how many to a house, etc.

We visited the De-Militarized Zone, a few hours south of PY on the main highway. The highway was beautifully kept, but we started to see the cracks of hunger. There were dirty, nearly naked children and others lying around by the side of the road. We would come across a few more frequently than once a mile. Once we were in Kaesong, the nearest city, there were tons of children, nearly naked, playing out in the dusty roads or the stream that was almost dry. Of course we weren't allowed to take pictures. Some lying around looked hungry and forlorn, but others appeared ok.

Beside the highway we saw beautifully-kept farmland, all rice or corn. I was impressed with how orderly it was, but two girls with farming experience in our group thought the corn looked unhealthy, shorter than it should have been, than what’s in NE China.

The DMZ was fascinating. Tons of costly infrastructure focused on observing a border; but, a lot less costly than war. When people say North Koreans lack freedom of movement, that isn’t just in-and-out of the country: to visit a different district within PY, you generally need approval from both your district government and your place of work. There are 19 districts in PY. There is no internet in DPRK. We were told they have a national intranet with instant messaging capability. I have no idea how many people have access to it. It would be impossible for anyone outside of the government to organize people.

We never knew what was arranged just for us, versus what was a glimpse of normal daily life. At the mausoleum to Kim Il Sung, a building the size of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we saw thousands of soldiers, office workers, peasants, girls in traditional clothing, and children traveling on moving walkway through this grand building without wall adornment, finally to enter the chamber of Kim Il Sung’s tomb and bow three times before a wax statue of his body. Our guides told us everyone in the country visits at least once a year. We had priority over all locals. I walked past so many. So many forlorn faces staring. Were they depressed, shocked to see foreigners, or envious and bitter? I looked at people constantly while in the country, trying to tell if they were happy.

I was wearing my replica Kim Jong Il uniform that I had tailored for Halloween two years ago. Wore it three days. At Arirang, locals wanted pictures with me. The richest attend, with their simple digital cameras.

The more they showed us how great things were, the more suspicious it made me. At the “PY Children’s Palace,” an alleged voluntary after-school program, gifted children danced and played music. All I could think of was the contrast with the kids beside the road in Kaesong.

The key aspects of North Koreans’ personal belief systems are adoration of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, and national pride and the desire to reunify with South Korea (and get the American imperialists off the peninsula). We visited a museum where they collected destroyed American fighter planes and other war memorabilia, and we visited the USS Pueblo, captured in 1968. Misinformation stunned us; some notables:

-The US initiated the Korean War, on a Sunday because as a “day of Sabbath in the Christian US, army strategists knew no one would expect them to start a war then”

-The US initiated the Korean War to bolster its depressed economy by selling arms to the South Koreans

-South Koreans have wanted the US out and the reunification to begin since the end of WWII

The rhetoric about wanting to reunify with the south is confusing: North Koreans mention the shared language and thousands of years of history, yet all teachings and discussions focus on the last sixty years, the time without shared history.

My suggestions for Obama and others:

Kim Jong Il is not crazy. North Korea’s economy is in trouble both because of bad decisions, like a planned economy, and bad luck, famine and floods. All while people were being told things are good. Underpinning the whole economy for decades was the Soviet support. So North Korea never learned to allocate capital properly. It was just handed everything. Things grew worse in the early 1980s, just as South Korea really started to take off. Controlling information and making things sound good became more urgent.

Time passed, and the gap between the reality and the stories continued to widen. The image of KJI and his father mustn’t shatter. KJI has a deep Confucian commitment to be the strong hand leading his people just as his father was. The West must approach him in a manner that doesn’t humiliate him. Not only is he proud, but his people have their pride deeply intertwined with him. Any changes, introduction of a market economy, must come from him. If there’s a power grab when he dies, that could lead to the government’s collapse; otherwise, it has a lot of staying power: it is impossible to organize there.

It’s frustrating to play to an egotist, but it’s the only route to constructive engagement. He (and his father) must look good. We should want to help such poor people, and we want to finally stabilize the region. Because from his point of view, when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose!

Ok if you’ve read this far thank you!! Time to rest. Unless someone wants me to go on pages more…. I have hundreds of pictures (as does everyone else from the trip, most of whom are much better photographers).

Cheers, comrades!

p/s photos: North Korean beauties (hey!!! don't blame the uploader, blame the sample source).


Tok said...

North Korea is one of the best place I have been.

Though my wife and me had travel extensively, we see NKorea as a clinically clean country. People are innocent. Maybe you might say that tourists tend to end up at 'developed' areas. Whatever it is, they are friendly, kind and innocent. Bargaining is reverse there. The more you bargain, the more costly the goods would be; probably due to supply/demand theory. It is just entertaining.

So Dali, you may have the few dollars to have visited London, Paris & New York, but a little sen(se) to just writeoff North Korea.

Be wiser not to condemn without experience it; it just show either you are ignorant or arrogant. Either way, no good for you. Cheers.

Salvatore_Dali said...


Nice comments. I am not going to even try to go to N Korea because I think its an abhorrent regime. If I don't think a zoo is treating animals humanely or decently, I won't want to visit the place. If you call me ignorant or arrogant, so be it.

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